The Jim Herbert Story

Photos Courtesy of Cheri Herbert Carter


James E. Herbert was born and raised in McCloud, California, a small community a few miles east of Interstate 5 on state Hwy 89. The landscape in McCloud is dominated by 14, 162 foot Mt. Shasta and the town's history and culture has been heavily influenced by the presence of timber and lumbering interests. Though a popular destination for sports enthusiasts looking to ski, hike, and climb, there wasn't a lot of interest in motor sports in general, or drag racing in particular. Jim was a standout at McCloud High in both football and baseball, but his true interest was hot rods and fast cars.

By the late 1950s, Jim was living in Sacramento and began frequenting the 1/8 mile drag strip at the old state fairgrounds. His first race car was a 1934 Ford coupe with a stroked 283 cid Chevy that he ran in B/A class. From there, he joined forces with life long friend Ted Taylor to race an injected Olds-powered dragster. Jim had so much fun driving the slingshot that he knew right then he would always be a dragster guy; "The Lizard" had found his niche in drag racing. Despite his growing passion for the sport, Jim had other concerns that needed to be addressed.

Recently married to his high school sweetheart and eager to start a family, Jim knew he would need to continue his education. With that in mind, he enrolled at California State University Sacramento and would eventually graduate with a degree in business administration. After a stint as general manager of several Tognotti Speed Shops, Jim used this experience and his business savvy to open Jim Herbert's Performance World in the early 1970s. All the while, he continued to race, sometimes with a dragster he owned or as a hired gun, but always a nitro-burning, supercharged, front-engined dragster.


Herbert's first race car, a '34 altered coupe.



It was 1962 when Jim Herbert took off the training wheels and jumped into the seat of a top fuel dragster. He formed a partnership with Dwayne Starr, welded together a homemade chassis, and hit the local tracks ( Kingdon, Vaca Valley, and Fremont) with a blown hemi combination. As his driving skills improved and reputation spread, he, like a lot of successful drivers, would soon get saddled with a nickname. First coined by the announcer at Kingdon Drag Strip, "The Lizard" would become Jim's alter ego for as long as he raced. And, just how did he inherit such a unique moniker? Well, it came not only from his slight and sinewy physical countenance, but also from the uncanny ability to slither through top fuel fields to emerge top eliminator. The Starr-Cox-Herbert dragster would go on to have reasonable success, but after about 18 months of racing, Jim would leave the team when Harley Van Dyke and George Wulf approached him with an offer to drive their new fuel dragster.


Jim Herbert with the Van Dyke-Wulf dragster; Sacramento Raceway, 1964


This was Jim's first opportunity to prove himself on a bigger stage. With a more ambitious agenda in mind, the team took their 336 cid blown Chrysler to Bakersfield to race Norm Weekly driving the OCMP Spl. for the Drag News Mr. Eliminator No. 8 spot. After a win for each in the first two rounds, Herbert laid down a stout 8.55 in the decisive third round match to win the coveted spot on the Drag News list; a first for a Sacramento-based fuel dragster. Though the Van Dyke and Wulf rail would be his customary ride for about two years, Jim also drove for Masters-Richter and Tognotti's Speed Shop during this time. By the mid-60s, the Sacramento drag race scene was coming into its own as more and more top fuel dragsters were being built. When Sacramento Raceway Park opened in October 1964, it gave all the drag racers a local venue in which to compete. Not only was there the Van Dyke-Wulf team, but others like John Cox (Starr-Cox-Hutchison), Gary Ormsby and the Vagabond, Don Argee and Tognotti's Speed Shop, and B & N Automotive. This drag strip also became the place where other Northern California racers came to challenge the capitol city boys. It was not unusual to see the likes of John Batto (Sonoma), Roger Harrington (Richmond), or Brown-Vargas (Redding) in the pits of Sacramento Raceway.


Sacramento Raceway opened its gates in October 1964; wouldn't this be a great way to watch a drag race today? Drive in, park your car, and stand by the fence and watch Jim Herbert launch a top fuel dragster.


Harley Van Dyke and George Wulf's B/FD; Bakersfield 1965 (no more weed burners-zoomies).


Jim Herbert would drive Harley Van Dyke and Greg Wulf's rail to a best of 8.17 and 189.46; not too shabby for a 336 cid iron hemi Chrysler.


Jim's next venture would involve the team that truly made him a legend in the sport of drag racing. In retrospect, 1966 turned out to be the greatest year in the sport of organized drag racing with top fuel dragster car counts peaking that year. There were literally hundreds of top nitro dragsters, fueled (no pun intended) by generous, if not lavish, purses. Every week there was a big race, be it the NHRA Winternationals, the AHRA Winternationals, the UDRA, the Smoker's race at Bakersfield, or the Hot Rod Magazine Meet at Riverside; and, that was just in California. This was also the year that the team of Herbert-Pitts (Frank)-Bishop (Bill) hit the tracks. It didn't take long for the trio to start winning events, and over the next couple years they would win over 30 top eliminators. Never did the phrase, "he owned the track" ring truer than this team's domination at Sacramento Raceway from 1966 through 1968. Despite an increasing number of rivals like Gary Ormsby, Shorty Leventon, John Batto, Roger Harrington, Don Cook, Jim Davis, and Dwight Bale, none of those racers came close to duplicating the success of this threesome from Sacramento.


Four shots of the original Lizard at Sacramento Raceway (1966).





In this case, the "Leaping Lizard ", March Meet 1967; yes, he actually qualified on this run.
<Jere Alhadeff Photography>

When H-P-B won the 8th Grand Nationals at Kingdon in March 1967, they prevailed over a field that included more than just the local NorCal contingent. The ladder was loaded with out of state talent such as Tom Hoover and Marvin Schwartz, plus big stars from SoCal like the Hawaiian and Tommy Ivo.
<Photo by Ted Stewart>

Kingdon Grand Nationals; over 10,000 fans showed up and The Lizard beat Starvin' Marvin (Schwartz) in the final.
<Photography by Bill Golding>

Their success was not limited to just winning purses; in November 1967 they set the track record at Fremont with a run of 228.09.


The news clipping below tells the whole story of this little adventure; this deal was only possible because Fresno was 100 ft. wide! The Lizard is the dragster closest to the camera.



Jim tells all; see inscription on photo.


This is actually 1967; the only year with the full body on the car.
<Steve Reyes Speed Photos>


Don Argee in the Capitol Woody (near side) against Raynor-Bishop-Herbert; El Dorado Raceway 11/26/67; Herbert the winner at 7.66-212.76 to Argee's 7.86-209.78.


Drag racing at its best. Far lane, the late Jim Herbert in Jeff Starr's digger racing Chuck Flores in the Safford, Gaide & Ratican "Shark Car". Half Moon Bay, 1967
Photo by Jim Phillipson


Nice chute shot at El Dorado Raceway; 1968.


R-B-H was the ex-"Quickie Too" car of Bill Leavitt; the 156' Woody chassis weighed in at 1250 lbs. and ran a best of 7.31-228.09 with a Bill Bishop prepared 392 cid Chrysler.
<Steve Reyes Speed Photography>

In February 1968, Jim would experience his one and only serious injury driving a top fuel dragster. It occurred at Lodi (Kingdon) during qualifying. Nearing the top end clocks and traveling well in excess of 200 mph, the oil filter split, spilled onto the headers, and ignited a fire. Though the aluminum fire suit kept the hot oil from directly getting to him, the heat was so intense that he essentially baked inside of it. With second and third degree burns on his arms, chest, neck, and shoulders, Jim would spend the next 15 weeks in the hospital. It would be more than six months before he could race again, healing just in time for the West Coast Championships in September 1968 at Sacramento Raceway.


The fire at Kingdon; it was just short of miraculous that Jim was able to get the chutes out and stop the car. The next four shots were taken by Steve Reyes, a resident of Newark, CA. at the time.





Any wonder drivers prefer the engine behind them?


Back racing after recovering from the fire at Lodi; Fremont Raceway,1969.
<Steve Reyes Speed Photography>

Commentary by the driver.
<Les Welch Color Photography>


<Les Welch Color Photography>


<Les Welch Color Photography>


<Steve Reyes Speed Photography>


Launch shot at Fremont; 1970
<Steve Reyes Speed Photography>


This is the before; see below for the after...
<Photo by Alan Earman>


March Meet,1970; instant junior fueler.
<Photo by Leslie Lovett>



The little escapade at Bakersfield curtailed the top fuel operation for the duration of 1970. While the team amassed an inventory of parts to return to the track, Jim jumped into the seat of the Burkholder Bros. (Harry and Pete) AA/FA for the duration of the year. At the first annual Governor's Cup at Sacramento, the altered set low e.t. and top speed of the meet with a 7.37-204.60, losing the final to Rance McDaniel. This was quite an accomplishment considering the rest of the field consisted of top fuel dragsters and funny cars. It was during this time that the sport of drag racing started to move in a different direction. By 1971, Don Garlits had successfully demonstrated that the future of top fuel racing would be with the engine behind the driver. Don had been seriously injured in a clutch explosion at Lions Drag Strip in 1970 and spent the rest of that year recuperating, all the while perfecting his design for the rear-engined dragster. His RED was immediately successful, winning both the 1971 NHRA Winternationals and a few weeks later, the Bakersfield March Meet. The days of the front-engined top fuel dragster was over, and by 1972 the bulk of the racers had converted over to the new design. Equally important was the development of the after market engine like the Donovan cast aluminum block. After years of managing the Tognotti speed shop empire, Jim realized it would be a good time to start his own enterprise. He opened Jim Herbert's Performance World in Sacramento in the early 1970s to service the growing demand for high performance race components. Yet, for many drag racers, the inflation that crippled the country in the 1970s would also knock them out of the sport. With costs soaring just to put a race car on the track, many competitors were silenced forever. Jim, with the resources of the speed shop behind him was able to continue on, and in 1972, he and Chris Raynor debuted their beautiful, new Don Long rear engined top fuel dragster. Drag racing had a new look and a growing professionalism, but the Golden Age of Drag Racing was gone forever.


Jim driving for the Burkholder Bros.; first ever Governor's Cup, Sacramento Raceway, October 1970.


Burkholder Bros. at the 'Dale; 1971.


Herbert in the Burkholder Bros.AA/FA utilizing the rarely seen experimental Crower injectors.



Ah yes, the VHT-fueled fire burn out; Sacramento Raceway, 1971.


By 1971, the nitro-burning, supercharged FED was becoming extinct; despite a few stubborn holdouts, the breed would vanish from the drag racing landscape by 1973.






The last time Jim Herbert would drive a front-engined dragster; NHRA World Finals, Ontario Motor Speedway, October 1971.






Postscript to Herbert - Part 1
by Henry Walther


Recently, while at Dave Uyehara's shop, I came upon an old front engine car that was in there for restoration. I was told it was one of Jim Herbert's old cars, but I couldn't remember it. I should have, as I did the lettering on most of Jim's cars. I was told it was orange, and that is was the car in which Jim was burned, and that is what threw me off track. I was also told that there were pictures of the car in the Jim Herbert story on WDIFL. I have just looked at that story.

Although many of the pictures used to illustrate the story are in black and white, the car in which Jim was burned was a dark blue. If you look at the photo that shows how the windshield melted down onto Jim's hands, you can easily see the lettering I did on that car. Us old sign painters can easily recognize our work and the color.

Also in part one of Jim's story there is a cartoon called Pop-Top Herbie and the Bakersfield Boom. I drew that cartoon and gave it to Jim. He and I worked together at Tognotti's Speed Shop so there was always a bit of friendly ribbing whenever one of us stepped in our own steaming heap. If you knew Jim you knew you needed to take your shots at him whenever you could. They didn't come very often. I hadn't seen that cartoon since I gave it to him.

There are also some photos of the Davis chassied, Hagerman bodied Lizard. I am sending you another photo of that car (below) before I had a chance to do all of the lettering on it. It is a qualifying run at Bakersfield in which the car did a big wheelstand. I had the body in my garage just before the race, and the bellypan was an inviting piece on which to add some lettering. It was a gorgeous smooth orange metalflake painted by a custom car painter in VacaVille. It was my intention to letter something like "Oh Shit" in the bellypan, just in case the car ever got up high enough to be seen, but I didn't get it done. Too bad, for as this photo shows, it would have been appropriate.



Finally there are pictures of Jim driving the Burkholder Brother's fuel altered. Jim Herbert, Pete Burkholder, and myself all worked at Tognotti's together. I raced against Jim that first day he drove the car. Needless to say there was a bit of honor on the line. No one wanted to go to work the next day having been beaten by a coworker. I tried a bit too hard and launched into a giant wheelstand (higher then shown in the photo). Jim on the other hand recorded the fastest speed the car had run to that time, so I had a little recourse in claiming I must have scared him into legging it out the back door.


Herbie, as I called him was a great friend, and I miss him. He was talented with a race car and as sharp witted as they come. We had a lot of fun together.


Jim Herbert Story - Part 2




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